About the Accordion
The accordion is a very versatile portable, hand-held, self-accompanied reed instrument that can play melody, harmony and rhythm simultaneously. In this respect, it may be thought of as a one-person band.
The accordion consists of a bellows attached to two oblong frames on which either buttons are mounted on both frames, or buttons are mounted on the left frame and a piano- or organ-like keyboard is mounted on the right frame. One can think of an accordion as a small, portable version of an organ.
A typical modern-day, full-sized piano accordion weighs about 25 pounds and has 120 bass buttons arranged in six rows, 41 keys (24 white keys and 17 black keys), and several bass and treble registers that the player can press to change the quality of the sound produced by the buttons and keys. Such an accordion usually can produce two or three different bass sounds. By pressing one treble register at a time, the player can make his treble keys imitate the sounds of the bassoon, organ, oboe, clarinet, piccolo or other instruments.
When being played, the accordion is strapped to the upper body of the player. While playing, the accordionist pushes the bellows back and forth with his left hand to make air flow through reeds that produce the instrument’s sound.
Many professional musicians acknowledge that the accordion is a difficult instrument to play. The accordion is not easy to play because it requires a considerable amount of physical coordination, as well as physical strength and exertion, on the part of the player. This is because one must simultaneously play keys on the right hand and press individual buttons arranged in a complex configuration on the left hand, while simultaneously pushing a heavy instrument back and forth with the left wrist while in synch with the varying rhythms, phrasings and tempos of the music one is playing. To further complicate matters, the player must simultaneously play two different musical systems—a black and white keyboard on the right hand and a series of buttons that create the sounds of sole notes or chords, on the left hand. Additionally, it is impossible for the player to see the bass buttons while playing the instrument, so the player plays these buttons totally by touch and never by sight.
Two Types of Accordions
There are two types of accordions: the button accordion, in which the accordionist plays buttons on both the right and left hands, and the piano accordion, in which the accordionist plays black and white piano- or organ-like keys on the right hand, to produce the treble sound, and the buttons on the left hand, to produce the bass sound. While button accordions still are widely used overseas, the most popular type of accordion in the United States today is the piano accordion.
The History of the Accordion
In terms of the history of Western musical instruments, particularly the instruments with keyboards, the accordion is a relatively new instrument. The earliest known organ, for example, existed in 250 B.C. It was a Greek invention called the “hydraulos.” The first exclusively bellow-fed organ appeared nearly 400 years later. By the eighth century, organs were being built in Europe. Meanwhile, the earliest known harpsichord was made in Rome, Italy, in 1521. Then, in 1709, the piano was invented by an Italian harpsichord maker.
Finally, in 1822, a rudimentary form of the accordion was patented in Berlin, Germany. The first actual accordion was patented in 1828 in Vienna, but it was not until 1852 that the piano accordion was patented. This instrument later was perfected in Italy. Finally, in 1909, Pietro Deiro, Sr. introduced the accordion to the United States, in San Francisco. The instrument soon was being played across the North American continent.
Over the past few decades, thanks to advances in materials and technology, the accordion has seen many improvements in its design, fabrication and creative potential as a musical instrument.
Acoustic and Digital Accordions
Today accordions are available in both acoustic and acoustic-electronic models that allow for amplification. Acoustic models can be played just about anywhere—from boats and ships to the beach and from enclosed structures to fields and mountains—as they are hand-pumped by the player and do not require any electricity to produce sound. Acoustic-electronic models are hand-pumped whether or not they are plugged into an electrical source. However, when an acoustic-electronic accordion is plugged into an electrical source, the instrument’s sound may be amplified.
The hottest new accordions on the market today are high-tech, electricity- or battery-powered reedless digital accordions that can simulate 22 orchestral and pop sounds. Orchestral sounds include trumpet, trombone, sax, clarinet, oboe, harmonica, violin, flute, jazz organ, percussive organ, human voice, mandolin, acoustic guitar, and acoustic piano, to name a few. The left hand can play seven high quality bass orchestral sounds, including acoustic bass, bowed bass, fingered bass, picked bass, fretless bass, baritone tuba, and baritone tuba + e. bass. The player can pump these accordions manually or play them with their bellows closed.
Accordions Can Produce a Wide Range of Music
The versatile accordion can play almost anything that can be played on the piano. The range of rhythms includes bossa novas, blues, boogie woogies, cha-chas, fox trots, jigs, mambos, marches, mazurkas, polkas, rags, rumbas, salsas, sambas, tangos and waltzes.
In addition, all type and categories of music can be played on the accordion, including ballads and love songs, classical, contemporary, “easy listening,” ethnic (Cajun, Eastern European, Hawaiian, klezmer, Mexican, Tex Mex, South American, Western European, zydeco, etc.), folk, jazz, new age, patriotic, pop, reggae, religious and gospel, rock, standards, show tunes and more.
Legends of the Accordion
Famous accordionists in the United States have included Dick Contino, who made “Lady of Spain” an accordion classic, and the late Myron Floren, whose happy polkas and smiling face entertained millions across America every week for years when he performed on the “Lawrence Welk Show” on national television.
Many recordings featuring the accordion are available at music stores in Hawaii and across the rest of the United States. Accordion enthusiasts will find numerous music CDs featuring the accordion in the classical, international, Tex-Mex and zydeco/Cajun sections of their local music stores and online.
“Planet Squeezebox,” a 1995 recording in CDs and audiocassettes, showcases 51 different accordion selections representing more than 40 international traditions. According to the producers of “Planet Squeezebox,” “No other reed instrument on the face of the earth is as versatile as the accordion.”
In addition, accordion enthusiasts can research records and plentiful information about the accordion on the Internet.
The Accordion is Making a Come-Back!
While the accordion probably enjoyed the peak of its popularity in the U.S. in the 1950s, the instrument is currently experiencing a nationwide come-back, with the resurgence of polka dance bands across America and the popularity of Cajun, Tex-Mex and zydeco music in the Southern United States.
In recent years, Hawaii audiences have been treated to accordion accents in a number of nationally touring bands, including Queen Ida and her band, which performed foot-stomping tunes at Leeward Community College; David Lee Garza and his band, which played Tex-Mex dance music at Gussie L’Amour’s; The Klezmatics, which captivated its audience at the University of Hawaii’s Andrews Amphitheater; Quartetto Gelato and The Battlefield Band, which appeared on separate dates at the Honolulu Academy of Arts; the Salzburger Akkordeonverein Saalfelden, an 18-member accordion band that performed at the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center and The Elks Club while on their 1998 world concert tour, etc.
If you have an old accordion stored away, perhaps it’s time to dust it off and squeeze out a tune or two!